Thursday, September 25, 2008

July 2006

To kick off its entry into the TV movie market, AMC found a picture that had all the hallmarks of a prestige production. An old-fashioned Western starring (and backed by) Robert Duvall, co-starring Thomas Haden Church, a recent Oscar nominee for “Sideways,” and directed by Walter Hill, a veteran action filmmaker whose resume includes “The Long Riders” (1980), maybe the best Western made in that decade, “Johnny Handsome” (1989) and “Wild Bill” (1995). But what looks good on paper doesn’t always shine on screen---even the small screen with commercial interruptions.

The miniseries begins with Duvall’s Ritter arriving at the ranch where his nephew (Church) works, circa 1897, to tell him his mother has died and ask him to joining him in a plan to drive a herd of horses from Oregon to Wyoming, where they can sell them for a bundle of money. Before you can ask why isn’t everyone doing this, Ritter and Tom are running the horses across the vast plains of the West.

Along the way, they rescue five Chinese girls who were sold into slavery and brought to America to be sold as prostitutes. Ritter, typically ornery and bossy, is a sweet old man when it comes to females and animals: He names the girls, who speak no English, One, Two, Three, Four and Five.

As promising as that sounds, nothing happens as they mosey across the country at a pace that by my estimation would have taken them about seven years to get to their destination. This nearly three-hour snooze fest is the movie equivalent of watching cows graze.

I’m all for leisurely, character-driven films, but “Broken Trail” offers little more than Duvall’s uninspired philosophy on life in a barely audible, gravely whisper. Turning up the volume didn’t help much but judging by what I did catch, it wasn’t worth hearing.

Between long takes of the men and their wards sitting around the campfire or riding along with the horses through the beautiful countryside, a good hour could easily have been snipped out of the running time.

Maybe the biggest leap one must make to buy into “Broken Trail” is believing that a 75-year-old man in the 1890s was physically capable of driving a herd of horses hundreds of miles. The few cowboys that lived that long spent their days sitting out on the porch, smoking their pipes and sipping from a jug of whiskey.

British director Michael Winterbottom is the most prolific filmmaker this side of Woody Allen, having made 11 films in the 10 years since his 1996 breakthrough film, “Jude.” Many of those movies follow real events and, while works of fiction, play out like documentaries.

He first utilized this style in the Bosnian war film “Welcome to Sarajevo” (1997) and again in the more frivolous “24-Hour Party People,” about the punk scene in Britain. “In This World” (2002), which I have yet to see, he recreates the journey of two real-life Afghan refugees across the continent while his film from earlier this year, “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” features real actors playing themselves on a fictional film shoot. This approach can be disconcerting for those of us who like clear lines between reality and fiction, but it also adds to the intensity of the storytelling.

This is especially true in “Road to Guantanamo,” which he co-directed with the film’s editor Mat Whitecross. Based on the real story of three young Pakistani men who live in Britain and return to their homeland for one of men’s wedding. Foolishly, they take a side trip into Afghanistan, arriving just in time for the start of American bombardment in 2001 and ending up as POWs, taken for Taliban members.

The filmmakers do an impressive job of capturing the chaos of a war zone in addition to showing how easily these men deceived themselves into thinking that nothing bad will happen to them. They’re just tourists, they think, enjoying the food and taking in the atmosphere.

Months of repetitive and seemingly foolish interrogation leads to their transfer to Guantanamo. Obviously, the film is based on these men’s version of events so it’s impossible to judge what’s true and what’s exaggerated, but it seems quite clear that the U.S. military isn’t very interested in what the prisoners have to say unless they’re ready to confess to being a terrorist.

I didn’t find the physical treatment of the prisoners very surprising, but, at least as portrayed here, the agenda of pushing them to confess (though they are never charged) comes off as heavy handed and just stupid. If we can’t distinguish between Taliban fighters and three layabouts on an adventure then this war on terror is going to be a painfully slow process.

It’s no coincidence that so many characters from Jean Renoir’s films have retained their flesh-and-blood vividness for more than a half-century. Not only did Renoir tap great actors to star (Michel Simon, Jean Gabin) but the director inevitably explored issues that were as timeless in the 1930s as they are now, layering his themes into the story and characters like a master novelist. And rarely did he come down on one side or the other; he presented life as a shade of gray.

Both hilarious and moving, “Boudu Saved From Drowning” is a parable-like story of Edouard Lestingois, a generous rich man who saves a tramp (Simon) after a suicide leap into the Seine River. Not only is Boudu the tramp unappreciative that his life was saved, but he creates pure chaos in Lestingois’ household in just a matter of days. It’s the classic clash of the unpredictability of the natural world and the orderliness of modern society. Simon’s Boudu says and does exactly what he feels, insulting everyone and tossing aside whatever comes in his way. But for all his rude, abrasive manner, he ends up changing the way the other characters see life. Renoir’s script (from a play by Rene Fauchois) puts up an introspective, sophisticated mirror on society and refuses to look away.

Fifty-four years later, director Paul Mazursky used the premise to make the very funny “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” starring Nick Nolte in the tramp role and Richard Dreyfuss as his host, but that film looks very ordinary when compared to Renoir’s.

Because Renoir wasn’t afraid of shooting on the streets of Paris, with his actors moving among regular folks, the entire film (even though most of it is set inside Lestingois’ large apartment) feels more modern than the studio-bound films of Hollywood from this era. Filming from across the street, the director watches, along with hundreds of onlookers lining a bridge over the river, as Lestingois jumps in to save the tramp. It has the look of a newsreel scene.

The hulking Simon, who Orson Welles praised as the greatest actor he’d ever seen, was fresh off starring in Renoir’s first sound success “La Chienne” (1931) and the screen version of his stage hit “Jean de la Lune” (1931). Simon is probably best remembered for his role in Jean Vigo’s “L’Atalante” (1934) as a barge caption’s first mate who heads off to retrieve his bosses’ runaway bride. His performance in that film, along with his portrayal of Boudu, are among the finest in French cinema history.

Renoir was just warming up with “Boudu.” His films during the 1930s include the moving World War I story “The Grand Illusion” (1937); “La Bete humaine” (1938), a brilliantly told story of how a man became wanted by the police; and his acknowledged masterpiece, “Rules of the Game” (1939), a critical look at the preening French upper class on the eve of World War II. In a tribute to his stature at the time, “Grand Illusion” became the first foreign-language film nominated by Academy Award voters for best picture.

Renoir moved to Hollywood in the 1940s, but could never match the quality of his films from the 1930s. He had a return to form in the 1950s, with “The River” (1951), a lyrical movie set in India, and “The Golden Coach” (1953), a vehicle for the great Italian actress Anna Magnani.

ADA (1961)
I’ve never been a big fan of Susan Hayward, but when she walks into a scene there’s no question who the star is. She always seems to be in a state of despair or, at least, girding for another tough fight to survive. Hayward rarely cracked a smile, but she displayed the swagger and screen presence that matched any actress of her time. That’s probably why she earned four Oscar nominations in a nine-year period and then won the Oscar for her 1958 performance in “I Want to Live!”

In “Ada,” she’s the title character: A high-priced, ambitious prostitute who spends the night with gubernatorial candidate Bo Gillis (Dean Martin) and ends up the First Lady of the state. The picture is filled with underwritten, oddly interesting characters, including Gillis’ protective press agent (Martin Balsam), who doesn’t seem to have a clue as to what’s going on and a conniving sheriff’s deputy (Ralph Meeker), whose bizarre actions don’t become clear until the end of the film.

At the center of the film is party power broker Sylvester Marin (British character actor Wilfrid Hyde-White, in an unusual bit of casting) who pushes Gillis aside once he’s elected and starts handing out favors to his business friends. One minute, Gov. Bo doesn’t seem to mind Marin’s interference, pulling the “gee-whiz, I’m just a country boy” act, and the next, he’s ranting about standing up for himself.

There’s a lot going on in “Ada” (it actually would make for a good miniseries) but Dino’s limited acting chops leave a big hole in the picture, especially in the final act when he questions the loyalty of his wife. He’s unable to communicate his character’s conflicted nature; he’s a charismatic man of the people but easily cowed by the political smarts of Marin and the First Lady.

While the film pre-dates the women’s liberation movement, it presses those issues, making a strong case for a woman’s ability to run a state---even if she started out as a hooker. At one point, Hayward’s Ada says, “I never thought I’d be a lady, let alone the First Lady.”

Directed by the usually reliable Daniel Mann---“Come Back Little Sheba” (1952), “The Teahouse of the August Moon” (1956), “Our Man Flint” (1966)---the film never meshes into anything more than a series of interesting scenes, but it raises issues that are still being wrestled with nearly a half-century later.

Going by the title, I would have bet good money that this film offered at least a piece of the story of the post-World War II gambling boom in Las Vegas. I would have lost that bet. Instead, it’s a plodding romantic triangle featuring Vincent Price and Victor Mature vying for the attention of Jane Russell, spiced up by the dice and highballs of Vegas.

About the only thing that makes this typical production from RKO during the Howard Hughes years worth seeing is the actual Vegas locations, especially the already well-established downtown area. The interiors look like Hollywood sets, but the exteriors give you a good sense of what the city was like in the early 1950s.

Robert Stevenson, who later became the house director for Disney (has anyone ever worked for both Walt and Howard Hughes?) making “The Absent Minded Professor” (1960) and “Mary Poppins” (1964) among many others, seems to have been asleep at the wheel as his actors bring little to this over-heated melodrama. Mature, playing an ex-beau of Russell’s from her years as a Vegas lounge singer, is now a cop who suspects Price is up to no good when he blows into town with his new wife (Russell).

As the piano player and Russell’s longtime buddy, Hoagy Carmichael adds a touch of authenticity to the show. The composer of such classics as “Stardust” and “Georgia on My Mind,” did his best acting sitting on a piano stool, but was memorable in “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) and “Young Man With a Horn” (1950).

Before the 1950s, the only movies about teenagers were of the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney “let’s put on a show” variety. Then came “Rebel Without a Cause” (1952), Nicholas Ray’s startling look at delinquents starring James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. The “problem” of teenagers became a hot topic in movies and “Blue Denim” was among the most daring, tackling the nearly unspoken dilemma of an unwanted pregnancy.

In many ways, the film, shot in black and white with minimal sets, looks and sounds like a more serious episode of “Leave It to Beaver.” Brandon de Wilde, the superb child actor who became famous in “Shane” (1953) was 17 when he played Arthur, a rather typical teenager who doesn’t get along with his military-trained father (Macdonald Carey) and has occasionally fisticuffs with his best friend (Warren Berlinger, later the star of the Disney TV series “Kilroy”).

Carol Lynley, also 17 and on the cusp of a career playing disreputable women, plays Janet, a good student and Arthur’s steady girl who becomes pregnant after their first sexual experience. Overall, the script by Philip Dunne, the famed screenwriter of “How Green Was My Valley” (1941) is down-to-earth and realistic in its approach to the situation and the characters’ emotions and reactions. Even the couple’s secret plan for getting an abortion is presented without heavy-handed preaching and acted out very believably. Dunne, who also directed the movie, adapted the screenplay from a play by James Leo Herlihy, who went on to write the novel “Midnight Cowboy.”

While the character’s clothes and speech date them, the emotions and relationships they deal with remain unchanged.


     I’ve never been much for experimental filmmaking, but there’s something about the films of Guy Maddin that make you want to see more. “Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary” (2002), a ballet version of ancient vampire tale, and “The Saddest Music in the World” (2004), a love story set against a beer company-sponsored sad music contest, received mainstream release, but didn’t exactly turn the 50-year-old Winnipeg writer-director into a household name or increase his Hollywood standing.

On the basis of “Saddest Music,” one of my favorite pictures of the past few years, I rented a DVD that included two of his films from the 1990s.

“Archangel,” like “Saddest Music,” looks like it’s a newly discovered print of a 1931 German film; it’s shot in black-and-white with occasional bits of dialogue and sound effects and filled with bizarre images. Unlike “Saddest Music,” it’s not very coherent or emotionally involving. “Archangel” mostly left me mystified.

It’s actually based on a pretty interesting slice of history that could be turned into a great film. But this isn’t it.

At the end of World War I, an international collection of soldiers were stationed in the northern Russian port city of Archangel and continued to fight the Germans even after peace was declared (no one told them). These troops, including American and Canadian soldiers, also fought along side the Russian White Army against the Communists, who were about to take over the country and dispose of the country’s royalty.

In Maddin’s film, the focus is on a Canadian solider (Kyle McCulloch) who has lost a leg and his girlfriend, but in Archangel finds a woman who looks like the dead girlfriend and a replacement for his leg. So much is going on in this film that it’s hard to stay focused on the story and when you do, only half of it makes much sense.

“Twilight of the Ice Nymphs” is something quite different. In glowing, fairy tale color and set in an imaginary world, it tells the story of an odd love triangle in which the characters’ feelings change with every scene. In a subplot, Shelly Duvall plays a love-starved woman who is constantly harassed by the manager of her property (played by comedian Frank Gorshin, believe it or not). He ends up with a large nail in his head, which suited me just fine. Anything to shut him up. I’m sure Maddin thought he was saying something profound in “Twilight” but I struggled to stay awake.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST (2006) The first installment of this wildly popular comic-adventure could, charitably, be described as brainless fun, owing most of its entertainment value to Johnny Depp’s foppish, vaudevillian-like performance as Captain Jack Sparrow. For part two, the filmmakers have drained the story of any humor, written a convoluted, nonsensical plot and, worst of all, given Depp little to do.

After the first “Pirates,” Depp admitted his portrayal was influenced by the boozy persona and slurred speech of Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards. In “Dead Man’s Chest,” Depp does an out-and-out imitation of Richards, which would be fine entertainment if he had been given an occasional clever line or some amusing physical comedy. I wouldn’t be surprised to read later that the entire movie was improved; hardly anything advances the plot or provides insight into the characters.

What I kept thinking as I endured this 150-minute epic was why the characters played by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley put up with Jack Sparrow’s crap. As they risk life and limb for the Captain, he treats them as nuisances (which, frankly, they are) and does everything short of pushing them off the deck.

The film hits a low point when the entire cast, it seems, arrives on a small, remote island, all in pursuit of the chest of the title. The ensuing idiocy makes an episode of “Gilligan’s Island” seem like a lost Shakespearean play.

Two actors do manage to stand out in this messy, sea-logged tale: Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard is memorable as Bloom’s long lost father now serving a death sentence as part of Davy Jones’ crew; and, adding a touch of actual wit to the show, Naomie Harris as a witchy woman who offers guidance to Sparrow and his friends. Harris also gave a wonderful performance earlier this year in “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.”

The lesson of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” if you’re running a movie studio that puts up millions of dollar to make dozens of pictures each year, is pretty clear: Don’t waste your money on an experienced screenwriter or a director who understands storytelling. Just get a couple of pretty faces, add tons of special effects and prepare to become rich.

If it wasn’t for a brilliant conceived, quietly mesmerizing performance by Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly, an unforgiving, self-obsessed editor of a top fashion magazine, this comedy would have disappeared after a week.

Adapted from a best-selling memoir of Lauren Weisberger, who worked as the assistant to Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, the film tries to be everything to everyone. At various points, the fashion industry is both lionized and satirized, and those working in the industry are portrayed as both obsessive idiots and caring artists. The new assistant, a wannabe serious writer played charmingly by Anne Hathaway, is portrayed as the moral superior to these vacant slaves to fashion at the same time that the film revels in her newfound taste in clothes and her entry into the upper-crust party set.

Like so many soulless Hollywood pictures, “Devil Wears Prada” uses the world of the rich and famous to turn us on emotionally at the same time it asks us to intellectually reject that life. We’re urged to cling to our personal integrity and high morals, but only after we’ve had a healthy taste of the decadence.

Hathaway’s character learns the usual coming-of-age life lessons during her short stay at the magazine, while leaving her mark on her seemingly heartless co-workers. In other words, a fairy tale.

But gliding above the dreck, is Streep, still our greatest actress, who plays her role straight and creates a very unlikable but very believable woman. As commanding and ruthless as Miranda is at work, there’s a scene late in the film when she takes off her glasses and laments the end of another marriage that shows her other side. It’s the standard scene where the evil character is allowed to reveal their humanity, but in the hands of Streep it becomes the richest, most meaningful moment in the film. This may be her finest performance since the 1980s.

Richard Linklater, who’s found a way to be both an independent filmmaker and a in-demand studio director, creates a high-tech “1984” in his new film, from the arty side of his brain, about undercover cops trying to stop the spread of a deadly new drug.

The cautionary tale, filled with blunt observations about the current state of freedom and based on a Philip K. Dick story, mostly serves as an opportunity for indulgent performances as druggies by Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane. But the hook of the film is a process called interpolated rotoscoping that draws over film of the real actors and the backgrounds, creating an animated version of real life.

Linklater used a more rudimentary version of the process in “Waking Life” (2001), a dream film that offered an endless stream of college dorm-like philosophizing. In that film, the background was constantly shifting (it was a dream) and was more headache-inducing than enlightening. “A Scanner Darkly” feels like a stunt film; if these characters weren’t drawn over would we put up with their nonsense for 100 minutes?

It doesn’t help that the dreary monotone voice of Keanu Reeves is the star. He plays the agent who infiltrates this group of losers, which also includes an enticing, but remote drug dealer, played by Winona Ryder. It does seem slightly ironic that for her first film since her self-imposed sabbital after her 2002 conviction on shoplifting, Ryder chose a role that she’s an animated character and, at least on the surface, a drug abuser.

Linklater, who first made his mark with “Slacker” (1991), his Austin-based collage of oddball characters, already has a fascinating filmography, including low-brow, very funny entertainments “Dazed and Confused” (1993) and “The School of Rock” (2003) and more arty fare “Before Sunrise” (1995), “Before Sunset” (2004) and “Tape” (2001). That makes it easier to forgive his occasional indulgences with rotoscoping or last year’s remake of “The Bad News Bears.”

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